History of the Scholarship
by Colette Gunn-Graffy

In his 1877 “Confession of Faith,” the 23-year-old Cecil Rhodes proclaimed that, the “chief good in life” was “to render myself useful to my country” (Flint 1877, 248). At the time, he envisioned himself posthumously creating a secret society dedicated to the expansion of the British Empire; however, in Rhodes’ last will, written nearly a quarter of a century later, this vision had been refined to the provision of education for “young Colonists at one of the Universities in the United Kingdom” in order to “[give] breadth to their views for their instruction in life and manners and [to instill] into their minds, the advantage to the Colonies as well as to the United Kingdom of the retention of the unity of the Empire” (quoted in Kenny 2001). That this education should take place at Oxford University was no surprise.  Rhodes was fascinated by the prevalence and prestige of Oxford graduates in British public life.  An Oxford man himself, he believed the university’s residential college system played a vital role in the personal and social development of the student.  Rhodes believed it essential the Scholarship be given to those who would “esteem the performance of public duties [their] highest aim” as opposed to mere bookworms.

At his death in 1902, Rhodes had provided for 52 Scholarships per year: 20 to be allotted to countries that were (then) part of the British Empire and 32 to the United States (two every three years for each then existing State). In a codicil to his will, Rhodes allotted an additional five Scholarships to Germany, it being his belief that “an understanding between the three great powers [would] render war impossible and educational relations make the strongest tie” (Kenny 2001, 5).  The terms of the will called for an award of £300 per year to be awarded to Scholars for three consecutive years of study at Oxford.  In 1903, the first twelve Scholars from Germany, Rhodesia and South Africa arrived at Oxford.  The following year, all constituencies were represented.

Much discretion was left to the Scholarship trustees as to how the selection of Scholars should be regulated, and whether new Scholarships could be created.  Since 1904, the list of Scholarship jurisdictions has grown to include India, Pakistan, Kenya, Hong Kong, Bermuda and the Commonwealth Caribbean.  The Scholarships originally granted to the former country of Rhodesia have been reallocated to present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe.  The Scholarship was opened to women in 1977.  Scholars are now able to pursue graduate degrees.  The typical term time for a scholar is two years, although, depending on the degree program chosen, the Scholarship may also be held for one or three years.  The Rhodes Trust pays the entirety of each scholar’s educational and travel costs, as well as a maintenance allowance to support the scholar both during term time and over vacations. 

The Selection Process

Potential candidates for the Rhodes Scholarship are judged on the basis of the four criteria set forth in Cecil Rhodes’ last will:

  1. Literary and scholastic achievement;
  2. Energy to use one’s talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports;
  3. Truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship;
  4. Moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one’s fellow beings.

Initially, these criteria caused some consternation, as Oxford was (and certainly still is) an exclusive institution.  Oxonians – tutors and their students – had misgivings about the caliber and class of foreign students to whom they were to open their gates.  In particular, they were concerned that Scholarship winners, selected on the basis of “well-roundedness,” rather than strict academic achievement (which, no matter how excellent, was not likely to include a proper classical education), would lower the academic standard of the institution as a whole.  According to a 1903 article in the New York Times, one Oxford don is said to have “consoled himself with the thought that American savages would be so busy on the sports field that at least they would have little impact on the rest of college life” (quoted in Schaeper and Shchaeper 1998).  The agreement reached by the Organizing Secretary of the Scholarships, Dr. (later Sir) George R. Parkin and university officials was that Oxford’s colleges would accept the Rhodes Scholars so long as they passed a basic examination called “Responsions,” which, among other subjects, tested for competence in Latin and Greek.

At this time, too, although all potential candidates were supposed to be judged by Rhodes’ four criteria, selection procedures varied across jurisdictions.  In Germany, for instance, the Kaiser himself nominated the Scholars — as Rhodes had stipulated in his will — whereas, many constituencies, including the United States and Canada, made their selections through district committees of prominent individuals.  In South Africa, Rhodes had specified that four out of the five Scholars be picked from specifically named schools.

Today, the selection process in nearly all jurisdictions requires candidates to submit evidence of their qualifications for the Scholarship, including academic transcripts, letters of reference, and an essay explaining the applicant’s reasons for applying and proposed course of study. Candidates are then short-listed for an interview with a selection committee, the make-up of which includes individuals from various career fields, some of whom have themselves been Rhodes Scholars at Oxford.  Even after being selected for a Scholarship, however, one is not assured a place at Oxford.  He or she must also submit two samples of written work to the desired department of study; only after the candidate has been accepted both by an academic department and an Oxford college, can the Rhodes Scholarship be formally conferred.

1  |  2 |  3  |  Next page »